Walking While Trans: police profiling and abuse of LGBTQ communities of color in Queens

LGBTQ 003.  In this entry of our LGBTQ-Logue Initiative, posting mementos of sexual justice issues, we share narratives from participants in a study about the gender-based violence that police regularly commit against LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people.

Illustration by Molly Crabapple.  Posted with permission. Found on Vice Mag.

Illustration by Molly Crabapple. Posted with permission. Found on Vice Mag.

In response to the rise of complaints about hate violence and police abuse against LGBTQ people in Jackson Heights, especially among people of color, the community-based organization Make the Road NY (MRNY) and the Anti-Violence Project (AVP) conducted a preliminary study to ascertain the extent of the problems with police. Between 2011 and 2012, MRNY and AVP collected over 300 surveys with LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people in Jackson Heights.  Interviews were conducted by outreach workers and volunteers through street, bar, and nightclub outreach, as well as within support groups and community meetings.

They found that LGBTQ, and transgender respondents in particular, reported higher rates of police stops compared to non-LBGTQ respondents.  Transgender residents of color were the most likely to experience police harassment and physical abuse when stopped.  46% of transgender respondents reported some form of physical abuse from police compared to 28% of non-LGBTQ respondents.  Narrative evidence obtained through interviews reveals the kind of physical harassment experienced such as handling, pushing, shoving and sexual harassment.

These are not just selective, one-off narrative accounts.  On the contrary, they are shared because they reflect general tends respondents experience with the NYPD in Queens.

Carolina describes being intrusively searched by police:

About 2 years ago something terrible happened when I was out in Jackson Heights. My girlfriend and I were on our way to a club when the police stopped us.  It was about midnight. The police stopped us and asked for our IDs.  My girlfriend had hers but I didn’t have mine with me at the time. At that moment the police started to frisk me and search my pants.  Because I dress very masculine they started telling me to ‘shut up you fucking dyke.’ They started to feel my breasts and search in that area (they were male cops and they’re not suppose to do that). They then proceeded to put me against the wall and told me to spread my legs.  They searched me between my legs like I was a criminal. I told them that I didn’t consent to their search.  But they said that they were ‘the authority’ and that they could do ‘whatever the fuck they wanted’ with me. I felt humiliated because I knew that even if I said something no one would believe me.  Also, because of my immigration status I was afraid to say anything and get deported.- Lesbian woman, Jackson Heights (MRNY 2012, pg. 20)

Another interviewee, Juan, reported being drag by her hair down the block.

I was walking down the street with my partner on 34th Avenue and a police car pulled over and told us to get near the car.  When the police officer saw that I was dressed as a woman he pulled my wig, held my hair and dragged me down 34th Avenue for 1 or 2 blocks. – Gay Latino man who cross dresses at night, Queens (Ibid: pg. 20).

Other narratives reflect violence committed by police and the unjust treatment carried out while in custody.

I was getting out of a club and heading to a friend’s house in a cab.  When I got to her apartment, I found that the police were stopping her and asking her to produce ID. They were talking to her in English. I intervened and told the officers that she didn’t speak English and that her ID was in her apartment, which we were in front of. I told them that I could get her ID from her apartment. The officers told me to shut up and arrested both me and my friend. The police used a lot of force while arresting us and said some homophobic and transphobic remarks in the process.  They put us in the back of their car and started laughing at us with other police officers who were also there.  I asked one of the officers to please open the window a bit more because we were out of breath, to which he responded by pepper spraying my directly in my face and mouth. Since we were trapped in the back of the car, the pepper spray also started asphyxiating my friend. I started kicking the car door and asking them to please let us out.  They opened the door and dragged me out of the car and started beating me up outside the car, while using transphobic and homophobic remarks. It was a very confusing, demeaning and unjust experience, I ended up being in jail for two days without representation and was intensely harassed by officers while I was in custody.- Transgender Latina woman, Queens (Ibid: pg. 18).

Part of that harassment involves arbitrary stops on suspicion of prostitution, which takes place in the form of a charge of “loitering for the purpose of prostitution”- a misdemeanor that allows for broad officer discretion.  The profiling of transgender women as sex workers is so common that there is a term for it: “walking while trans”.

Arrests can be made on the basis of how tight one’s clothing is and how many condoms are on the person, which will be used as evidence in court.  If convicted for prostitution, the person will lose social benefits like food stamps and subsidized housing.  As a result, transgender women are especially fearful that any condom in their possession will be used as evidence against them.

The survey participants commonly reported stops that seemed to be without basis but in which the police officers later justified the stop by charging the person with prostitution because condoms were found on their person.

Cristina explained how the police did not believe that her boyfriend was not a patron and the officers confiscated three condoms off of her.

One night I was with my boyfriend at a club in Jackson Heights, Queens.  At around 4am we left the club together and walked home. We were walking next to each other. At one point an undercover police van stopped next to us.  Eight undercover cops got out from the van and some of them threw me against the wall. While they were handcuffing me, my boyfriend was also through to the wall and they frisked him. They told me I was being arrested for sex work. I told them that I was not doing anything like that. After they frisked my boyfriend, they frisked me and found three condoms, after seeing the condoms they asked if I was sure that I was not working.  I told them that I was with my boyfriend and they said that he was not my boyfriend. I told one of the female cops to help me and that I was not doing anything wrong. She said that she couldn’t help me out. My boyfriend came to the 110th Precinct where I was held and spoke to the captain; he tried to explain that I was his girlfriend and that I was with him. But the captain said that he couldn’t do anything. I was taken to court and was accused of sex work.– Transgender woman, Jackson Heights (Ibid: pg 21).

Another interviewee describes being jumped by undercover cops and experiencing repetitive humiliation and harassment while in custody:

Last week, I went out dancing at a small night club on Roosevelt Avenue.  After having a good time and feeling ready to go home, I contacted my friends so that we could meet at a small taqueria before we all headed home.  Meeting up at the taqueria after a night out is routine for us because the tacos are really good, and it’s also the only way we know that our circle of friends is safe.

While on my way to the taqueria, I was approached by a dark colored car driven by a middle-aged male.  As the male pulled alongside me, he said something I couldn’t hear properly.  As I did not hear what the male was saying, I inched a little closer to his vehicle and he repeated, ‘Why are you so beautiful and yet alone?’ Before I knew it, two undercover officers jumped out of a van that was parked along the street and told me that I was under arrest.  When I asked the officer’s why they are arresting me, they told that I was ‘engaging in prostitution’.

They cuffed me and the officers questioned me further, took my purse away from me and placed me into the unmarked van.  Although I had nothing on me and did nothing wrong, they still took me, transferred me into another police van filled with about a dozen trans-women and then took us all down to the 115th Precinct where we were fingerprinted, written up and later transferred to the central booking.  My experience in the holding cell at central booking was terrible.  I was humiliated inside of the holding cell by the guards and the men who occupied the cell with me.  The guards would not all me anything other than bread and water to eat and I was not allowed to use the toilet when I needed to go.  Tears streamed down my face as for the first time I was encountering the daily harassment that transwomen face for just walking home.-Transgender Latina woman, Queens (Ibid: pg. 17).

And it doesn’t just happen at night after clubbing.  It also happens while doing routine daily activities such as walking the dog or grocery shopping.  Here is just one testimony of many from the MRNY study.

I am transgender.  I was walking to the store near my house on Roosevelt Avenue when two cops stopped and arrested me.  When I asked why I was being arrested, they replied, ‘Because you are pretty.’ They charged me with loitering for prostitution when I was only walking down the street.- Transgender Latina woman, Queens (Ibid: pg. 17)

This profiling and abuse has been documented extensively across the US by Amnesty International (2005), the PROS Network (2011) and Human Rights Watch (2012), to name a few.  All studies conclude that there needs to be more done within the legal system and law enforcement culture to address homophobic and transphobic attitudes and discriminatory policing against LBGTQ people.  Suggestions include LGBTQ liaison units to police forces and integrating LGBTQ issues into officer education and professional development.

There is also a bill to end the use of condoms as evidence of sex work.  Since 1999, a coalition of people in the sex trades, allies, and community-based organizations have been working to pass the No Condoms As Evidence bill into law in NY state.  In 2012, a report by the PROS Network and Sex Worker Project revealed how the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution is creating a public health crisis because it is deterring targeted populations from carrying condoms.  This is “deeply concerning”, writes Emma Caterine of the Red Umbrella Project, as people in the sex trade and gender nonconforming people are often most at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. “To combat this violence and promote safer sex, we must stop the use of condoms as evidence by both police and prosecutors (RH Reality Check, 2013).”

On April 23rd, 2013, Red Umbrella Project will be lobbying in Albany, NY to get the No Condoms as Evidence bill passed by representatives.  For more information on this bill and how you can get involved, check out their website.

3 thoughts on “Walking While Trans: police profiling and abuse of LGBTQ communities of color in Queens

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